All in the mind?

A brief look at the psychological theories of addiction

While some researchers weigh the importance of biological factors in addiction, others suggest the key drivers are psychological.

The behavioural theory of addiction is that addictive behaviours are learned, through a two-stage system. In the acquisition stage, the initial link between behaviour and a positive feeling is learned through classical conditioning, as the person begins to associate the behaviour with a good feeling. Then, in the maintenance stage, operant conditioning comes into play – the more they indulge in their addiction, the more ‘buzz’ they get, which reinforces the behaviour, making it more likely to be repeated.

The cognitive theory of addiction proposes that the addiction is due to an underlying irrational belief. In the case of gambling, it suggests that addicts think their behaviour influences the outcome more than it does, that they underestimate the value of the bet and overestimate the value of a win.

The social learning theory highlights how we learn through observation, so takes into account the effects of culture, peers and the media on a person’s addiction. It also suggests that we learn vicariously through operant conditioning – we learn whether or not a habit is good, bad or socially acceptable through how someone else with that habit is treated. If we notice that someone smoking is seen as cool, this might increase our likelihood of smoking.

The distinction between these theories is not completely clear-cut, though. Some treatment programmes are based on cognitive behavioural models, and focus on helping addicts to understand their patterns of thought and perception so they have a chance of altering their own behaviour. Essentially, there may be a combination of thoughts, behaviours and social influence that affects whether a person becomes addicted.

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About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Addiction’ in June 2010 and reviewed and updated in September 2015.

Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development